A few weeks ago, I read an interview with author and activist E. Benjamin Skinner on the Busted Halo web site. The interview was about his new book “A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face With Modern Day Slavery.” Up until then, I was peripherally aware that slavery and human trafficking were a problem in the world today, but I didn’t realize the extent to which it goes on, or the horrific abuses suffered by those who fall victim to slave owners and traders. Ben put his own life at risk to share these victims’ stories with the world and hopefully motivate people to address this problem in a way that leads to concrete results. Here are some excerpts from my interview with Ben on “Christopher Closeup” (full podcast here).
TR: Ben, in the book “A Crime So Monstrous,” you share the story of a boy named Bill Nathan and how a nun named Sister Caroline helped him out. Can you tell me a little about his story?
E. Benjamin Skinner: Bill was born to a loving mother who died quite young, and had come in contact with this American nun, Sister Caroline, in Haiti in his childhood. Bill was taken in as a domestic slave (after his mother’s death) and beaten regularly. He would be whipped until strips of flesh came off of his back. If I’m recalling correctly, he was six years old when this started. He only got out when Sister Caroline caught wind of what was happening to him and sent in two men to rescue him - to actually abduct him from his captors – and to put him into a wonderful home run by a man who used to be part of Mother Teresa’s order. It was a tiny, under-funded, but safe, peaceful, graceful home called St. Jospeh’s. It’s in Port-au-Prince. Bill is now the manager of the home.
The most remarkable thing to me about Bill is that after he was rehabilitated, after he began to thrive in this home, he went back and found the woman that had forced him to work as a slave and he openly forgave her. He actually offered her money. The degree to which individuals like Bill can take their lot in life and say, “That isn’t me” and demand their humanity, but then go in and make the world a better place really underscores why it’s worth fighting slavery. These aren’t disposable people; these are people that can be survivors - and these survivors can be leaders and can radically scale up the degree to which their communities understand the basic concepts of liberty.
TR: One of the parts of Bill’s story that really stood out with me is when he went back to the house, he sees the boy there who took his place as a slave and he tells him, “Have hope. God is good.” How difficult is it for these slave children to have a concept of a good God in light of how they’re treated?
E. Benjamin Skinner: Bill’s mother had given him the gift of faith before she died. He held onto that despite the brutality that he suffered. There’s no question in my mind and there’s no question in his mind that his faith in God is what sustained him. On the flip side, I’ve talked to survivors and I’ve talked to current slaves who seem to have lost hope. I know that this does not make them disposable. It shouldn’t make them hopeless in our eyes, but it certainly makes their road to recovery more difficult.
TR: Ben, another section of the book that was really powerful to me was when you were undercover in Romania and you meet a young woman in a brothel who is in the worst condition you’ve ever seen. You’re a journalist, not an actor, so how do you keep your emotions in check when you see those kind of things?
E. Benjamin Skinner: To flesh that out, this young woman was being offered to me for sale. She was taken out of a darkened room. She had the visible effects of Down Syndrome. On one of her arms, she had raised red slashes where I can only assume she was trying to escape daily rape the only way that she knew how - by killing herself. This young woman was offered to me in trade for a used car. I went in and I was undercover and I immediately thought I have to keep in character…I said, “Let’s get out of here. Let’s talk.” So we began to negotiate. My impulse was to go and find the local chop shop, find a used car, trade for her, and get her out. But I knew from talking to those who do the real hard work of emancipation that rewarding a trafficker like that would be giving rise to a trade in larger misery. So what I did is I took a zoom photo of the trafficker and took the (tape from the wire I was wearing) into the local police. I said, “Here’s the evidence, here’s what I’ve seen, I’m willing to testify.” The response that I got from a quite able prosecutor who had successfully prosecuted a number of trafficking cases was, “These are the gypsies. We want to prosecute them but we have nobody on our task force that speaks Romani. If we were to take that girl out of bondage, who is to say that she would testify?”
The Romanian justice system needs to be reformed…In a situation like this where you have somebody who has been enslaved for as long as this young woman, it takes some real TLC, some real sensitivity to win this person’s trust enough so that they know they will be protected if they testify against their trafficker. The prosecutor in this case had no confidence that that would be the situation so as far as I know, that young woman is still in hell.
(To help the fight against modern-day slavery, visit www.FreeTheSlaves.net or visit E. Benjamin Skinner’s web site www.ACrimeSoMonstrous.com. To listen to the full Christopher Closeup interview with E. Benjamin Skinner, visit www.christophers.org/closeuppodcast.)